U.S. Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware has become the fifth Democratic lawmaker to demand the Trump administration scrap its plan to waive a 50-year-old anticorruption law that prevents officials who administer the GI Bill from accepting money from for-profit schools backed by taxpayer subsidies.
In a letter sent Friday to Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, Carper called the administration’s plan “legally dubious.” Carper is a 23-year veteran of the Navy and Naval Reserves and the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The letter came in response to a proposed regulation, published in the Federal Register on Sept. 14, that would allow VA employees to receive wages, salary, dividends, profits, gratuities and services from for-profit schools that receive GI Bill funds. VA employees also would be allowed to hold an ownership interest in such schools.
The move, Carper wrote, represents “a drastic departure from the intent of Congress and weakens important ethics standards designed to protect VA employees and veterans.” He noted that it flies in the face of a request from the Senate Appropriations Committee in July, which recommended that the legal prohibitions in the anticorruption statute be strengthened, not weakened.
The proposed change was exposed by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, which repeatedly has documented abuses by for-profit colleges that seek to cash in on veterans’ GI Bill education benefits. The New York Times highlighted it as well.
Carper’s letter follows a similar missive sent Wednesday by Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Richard Durbin of Illinois.
The VA so far has resisted pressure to reverse course. On Friday, VA press secretary Curt Cashour told Reveal that “the department could lose thousands of employees” if prohibitions against payments by for-profit colleges were vigorously enforced and that “our ability to serve veterans would be seriously impeded.”
He downplayed the importance of the change, arguing that despite the blanket waiver, other conflict-of-interest laws still would apply. For example, materials attached to the proposed rule stipulate that VA employees would be required to “recuse themselves from VA matters when an employee’s participation would cause a reasonable person to question the employee’s impartiality.”
But critics say the rule change effectively would nullify critical consumer protections. They say it could create a situation in which VA officials, who are charged with ensuring GI Bill funds are well spent, could accept payments from colleges that are facing civil suits or probes from enforcement.
The rule is set to take effect Monday. “There has been no change in implementation plans,” Cashour said.
Aaron Glantz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Aaron_Glantz.